The Nashville Predators — not the mighty Chicago Blackhawks, not the big, bruising St. Louis Blues — are the top team in the Central Division entering the NHL All-Star break. They have a 19-point lead on the Wild and are three points behind the league’s best team, the Anaheim Ducks.
The Nashville Predators!
After his team defeated the Wild earlier this month, Nashville’s Olli Jokinen was asked how this was possible. Like a woodpecker hammering a tree, the veteran’s head began motioning speedily toward a stall where goalie Pekka Rinne calmly wiped down his gear.
“Pekka gives us a belief before every game that we’re going to win,” Jokinen said.
Want to know how important goaltending is? Last season, Rinne — Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom’s former backup in Finland — missed almost the entire season because of complications following hip surgery. The Predators not only missed the playoffs, but they had the fifth-worst save percentage (.902) in the NHL and allowed the eighth-most goals per game (2.84). Although he is injured right now, Rinne has been in net for 29 of Nashville’s 30 victories this season, recording a 1.96 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
There’s an adage credited to former coach Gene Ubriaco that in hockey, goaltending is 50 percent of the game — unless it’s bad goaltending. Then it’s 100 percent.
It doesn’t matter how much talent you think you have up and down your roster, if you don’t get the goaltending, nothing else matters.
As much confidence as Rinne gives the Predators — as Carey Price gives the Montreal Canadiens, as Jonathan Quick gives the Los Angeles Kings — if you don’t have trust in your goalies, you have one foot in the loss column before the game even starts.
When you don’t have to worry about your goaltending, you just play.
“Having a goalie of Pekka’s caliber playing behind you takes your team to another level,” Predators veteran Matt Cullen said. “It’s unbelievable how the attitude of an entire team can be lifted by a goalie that controls the game the way he does.”
Similarly, the analytics will tell you the Canadiens are an average team this year. Yet, Price, who backstopped Canada to an Olympic gold medal last February, covers up for mistakes. He has 24 victories, a 2.15 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Teams feed off big saves or get deflated after a bad goal, it’s as simple as that. When momentum changes, players start to “cheat” — start trying to do teammates’ jobs. A team’s system breaks down, and its overall game starts to erode.
This is a large chunk of what happened to the Wild this season. The Wild has allowed a league-low 26.8 shots per game, but it has the NHL’s second-worst save percentage at .891. Backstrom is last among qualifying goalies with an .887 save percentage. Darcy Kuemper is seventh-worst at .904.
There have been many examples of costly goaltending. On Oct. 28 in New York, Kuemper gave up a 3-0 third-period lead; more recently, Backstrom gave up six goals in Pittsburgh. But things really came apart Dec. 5, when the Wild rallied from 3-0 down to take a 4-3 lead against Anaheim. Ninety seconds later, after Justin Fontaine’s goal in the third period, Kuemper gave up a tying goal to fourth-liner Tim Jackman. Less than five minutes later, the Ducks took the lead in an eventual victory and Kuemper was pulled for the third of five times this season.
Slowly but surely, the bad goals, the early goals, the constant chasing of hockey games led to the Wild’s game deteriorating.
“By the time players start talking about it, the goalie’s already been thinking it in his head — ‘I’ve got to make a save,’ ” former NHL player and current TSN analyst Ray Ferraro said. “One goes in 38 seconds into the game, you know he’s already fighting the battle. It becomes perpetual. It just never stops.
“This has kind of run out of control in Minnesota, and the shame of it, with their system and structure, Minnesota doesn’t need to have great goaltending. They just need good goaltending. Look at when Chicago and Philadelphia made it to the final [in 2010]. All Chicago got was adequate goaltending from Antti Niemi.
“But this goes back to [Josh Harding’s multiple sclerosis and broken foot], Kuemper’s inexperience and Backstrom’s injury problems the last several years. When you finesse that position, it’s like having two quarterbacks. It usually means you have nobody. Rarely do teams have two goaltenders you have equal confidence in. Lots of times you end up with no confidence in either guy.”
Luck plays a role
The Flyers for years have seen seasons derailed because of poor goaltending. Ferraro mentioned the Blues of the early 2000s when “they tried to finesse the position and it just didn’t work” with goalies such as Roman Turek, Brent Johnson and Fred Brathwaite.
“And those were great teams with Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Dougie Weight, Keith Tkachuk,” Ferraro said. “You can hope your No. 5-6 defensemen play well. You can’t hope your goalie plays well.”
Goaltender is possibly the loneliest position in professional sports. It’s so individual. You can’t be moved to a different line or hidden in the lineup. The coach can’t limit your minutes until you find your legs.
It’s also unforgiving — and the most unpredictable position to scout. Rinne was drafted 258th overall in 2004. Twenty-eight goalies were taken ahead of him, including Al Montoya sixth overall, Devan Dubnyk 14th overall and the first Japanese-born player ever selected, Yutaka Fukufuji.
Like many of those 28, Fukufuji didn’t exactly make it.
In 2005, the Wild took Benoit Pouliot fourth overall in 2005, enforcer Matt Kassian 57th and a goaltender named Kristofer Westblom 65th. Price went fifth, Tuukka Rask went 21st, Quick went 72nd and Ben Bishop went 85th.
Maybe the Wild’s history would have changed if it had selected any of those now-big-name goalies.
Roll of the dice
Scouts say it’s hard to project a 17- or 18-year-old goalie. So many look awkward and haven’t grown into their bodies, so many haven’t been properly coached, and it’s difficult to determine a teenage goalie’s mental toughness or general makeup. And considering a large part of goaltending success is mental, it’s a big reason so many high-drafted goalies flop, yet mid-to-late-rounders make it.
Plus, the development path has to be correct. One predicament with Kuemper, 24, is the Wild can no longer send him to the minors without waivers. The Wild planned on him being in the minors until Harding’s preseason injury.
“Goalies are usually ready by 27 or 28. My opinion is they were asking too much from Kuemper,” Ferraro said. “Look at Jimmy Howard. He spent four years in Grand Rapids before Detroit decided to swim or cut bait.”
The reality is good goaltending will help a team soar, bad goaltending can sink a team. They don’t need to be Patrick Roy great, but they can’t be Atlanta Thrashers bad.
“We need our goaltenders to be better,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said after acquiring Dubnyk. “Our goal down the stretch here is to win as many games as we can and see where it takes us. A big part of getting more wins will be more consistent goaltending. Our guys are capable of it.”